Aisling Gallagher reflects on the importance of heroes for the communication of higher ideals in alienated and unjust conditions.
Viewers of the cult Italian series Gomorrah will be familiar with the nickname of one of its main characters, Ciro Di Marzio: ‘L’Immortale’. The Immortal. The series tells the story of drug wars between rival gangs in working class areas of Naples, a city known across the world for its crime rate, its football team, and its love affair with Diego Armando Maradona.
I was born in the year Diego Maradona almost single-handedly led Argentina to the World Cup. My memories of his playing career as it happened are vague at best; he retired when I was 11, finishing his career at Boca Juniors, at a point in my life where I was more interested in whether the new Swedish striker was going to work out at my club, Celtic. However as I moved through my teenage years, my equally fervent passions for football, socialism and Italy drew me to this Argentinian footballer whose move to Napoli had brought a level of success to that club that they’re yet to replicate, and whose disregard for upper class notions of convention and propriety had led to many people labelling him a wastrel who had squandered his talent.
I began to watch whatever clips I could find of his days as a footballer, not an easy feat in pre-YouTube days. I read what I could find that had been written about him: books, articles, anything, and then I came across a picture of his meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1987, and I understood why I’d been so drawn to this footballer. His friendship with socialist icons like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and laterally Nicolas Maduro saw him pilloried by the right and indeed the centre. It is, of course, unsurprising that the son of a Buenos Aires factory worker would be a socialist. Growing up in Villa Fiorito, a working class area on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his experiences of poverty were ingrained from childhood, and Maradona never forgot these roots. For me, his socialism sealed his position. He was, from that day, my hero.
Diego Maradona was a footballer for the people. He epitomised all that football is for the working class across the globe – freedom, creativity, and the ability to simultaneously unite and divide people as no other sport does. He was passionate and charismatic. He refused to apologise for his talent and for the results of it. When he was vilified by English journalists after his Hand of God goal, he laughed in their faces and brought up his other goal from that game, a goal so iconic that it is imprinted in the mind of most football fans. He was haunted by his addictions and regularly mired in scandal throughout his life, but rather than alienate him from fans, this served only to demonstrate that, despite his immense and unrivalled talent with a ball at his feet, he was, like the rest of us, merely human.
Diego’s move to Napoli in 1984 heralded the start of a spell in which the club won the league for the first time in its history, securing it a second time a few years later and also winning their first European trophy. As the first Southern Italian team to lift the Scudetto, the 1986-87 Napoli squad are legends, and none more so than Diego Maradona. His image adorns buildings across Naples. Thousands of Neapolitans are called Diego, so true is this city’s love affair with its hero. When news of Maradona’s death broke, a day of mourning was called by the mayor, and calls were made to rename the Stadio San Paolo in his honour because Diego is as much a Neapolitan as he is an Argentinian, and because it is impossible to think of Naples without thinking of Diego. He is part of the fabric of the city: an icon who, through his passion and talent, lifted an entire people and gave them reason to believe in themselves and in something collectively bigger and more important than the everyday struggle of mere existence.
Maradona’s death at 60 leaves a hole in the collective consciousness of football fans. In Naples, he is and always will be, iconic. He is their Diego, their scugnizzo, and for them (and for me), he is immortale.